As a company whose original founders were colleagues of electricity innovators Thomas Edison and Frank Sprague, Sargent & Lundy has a rich history of deep industry knowledge and engineering expertise that has been passed on internally for 125 years. Today the business, composed of 87% engineers and designers, provides comprehensive services for complex power generation and power transmission projects. Accomplishments for this top-ranked design firm include the design of 958 power plants, totaling 140,667 megawatts for clients in public and private sectors worldwide. Based in Chicago, Illinois, the business has several regional offices in the US, has global offices in Canada and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and is looking to expand into markets wherever power is growing.
“Part of Sargent & Lundy’s mission is to enable our employees to achieve excellence in our industry,” says DeAnna Myers, Senior Manager of Learning and Development at Sargent & Lundy. The company makes a habit of hiring and retaining talented people in an effort to promote from within. On average, employees stay with the company upward of 15 years. “We take pride in the depth of knowledge of our experts and their loyalty,” she says. “And we tend to cross-utilize our staff to do various types of work because we believe they’re the right people for our mission and vision.” Myers describes her role as one focused on ensuring that employees have the skills, tools, and resources they need to achieve excellence throughout their careers.
The company culture at Sargent & Lundy comprises a diverse workforce of five generations from Traditionalists to Generation Z — all collaborating together with different styles of working and their own learning preferences. “It can be challenging for the different generations to understand how one another learns. It takes a conscious effort to get comfortable with the task, approach, and style of each generation,” says Myers. “To facilitate that effort, it was important to enable cross-generational conversations. Our Communities of Practice (CoP) program enables experts to collaborate with more novice staff around specific topics — drilling down into more ambiguous topics for which information can’t easily be found. In this manner, the knowledge and expertise of everyone improves.”
In December 2010, a projection was published stating that nearly half of all engineers working in the power generation industry would be eligible to retire by the year 2015, taking with them a significant slice of the industry’s knowledge and expertise.1 Understanding this prediction in the context of its own business brought knowledge sharing to the forefront for Sargent & Lundy. While engineers had access to a rich knowledge database in the company’s documented processes and procedures, there was an underlying layer of tacit knowledge that was not so simple to communicate, which remained untapped. This need led to the search for a learning platform to help capture this all-important existing, tacit knowledge that would extend well beyond what information could be gleaned in an employee’s exit interview.
Capturing Expert Knowledge
As the result of a large power generation project during the same timeframe, Sargent & Lundy hired a wave of staff to support the new plant’s design. For training, the company had traditionally relied on an untracked schedule of instructor-led courses, often performed in silos and often duplicating or overlapping with existing training. “Aside from the redundancies created, the moment we finished an instructor-led offering, we hired another three people who needed the course, so we were missing parts of the targeted audience while taxing our experts significantly,” Myers says. At that time, there was no in-house computer-based training available for new employees, and training was largely a group-specific endeavor.
This was a motivator for the business to find a more sustainable learning model. After careful review of several options, Sargent & Lundy decided to implement SAP SuccessFactors Learning Management System, which was the company’s first foray into SAP software. Myers says, “That became the basis for our learning program, which aimed to combine our training efforts, eliminate silos, streamline how we enabled staff to take on new work and responsibilities, and provide unique and valuable offerings to help people achieve excellence in their everyday work.”
With the new learning management system in place, videos and online classroom courses were added to the company’s training arsenal, along with personalized learning plans for people working with specific disciplines and technologies. In this way, an entry-level electrical engineer working on a nuclear plant would follow a specific nuclear learning plan with unique courses and objectives different from that of another electrical engineer working on a transmission project. According to Myers, these new training methods facilitated the individual achievements that helped foster employee development in their current and future tasks.
Within a few years, as those new hires advanced, they developed very specific learning needs. And as the company began expanding to the far reaches of the globe and staff started spreading out as well, it became more common for employees to work remotely in the field or offsite at a regional office, secluded from other seasoned experts who they could turn to for help. “Staff working at a field site in the UAE, for example, who are in a time zone 10 hours ahead of the corporate office, might encounter a problem — maybe sizing of a certain type of valve — that they aren’t sure how to solve and there’s no one on site who can help,” says Myers. “They won’t be able to reach an expert at the main office whose morning alarm won’t go off for another few hours.”
Sargent & Lundy realized that its knowledge sharing model needed to anticipate the new challenges people were facing in the expanding business. “Face-to-face meetings were — and still are — the core of our CoP program and the primary avenue for staff to collectively explore project progress, industry trends, and best practices, as well as innovative solutions,” Myers says. “We recognized the need to extend these valuable conversations. It wasn’t enough for a group of people to meet in person and discuss an emergent issue. The model had to accommodate the engineer in Abu Dhabi facing the same challenge and had to provide access to what this core group of engineers discussed, allow for questions, and provide the same visuals the face-to-face group viewed so that it became feasible to solve the problem remotely.”
While the in-person meetings and online trainings were successfully transferring knowledge, there was still information that had become second nature and unconsciously engrained in experts over time that could be teased out. “We recognized that our experts had this incredible, intricate, and mature web of knowledge that we could only tap into through conversations and scenarios in the moment,” says Myers.
So the business started looking for a way to get at and pass on this expert knowledge and extend the CoP conversations through collaboration software.
We recognized that our experts had this incredible, intricate, and mature web of knowledge that we could only tap into through conversations, examples, and scenarios in the moment.
— DeAnna Myers, Senior Manager, Learning and Development, Sargent & Lundy
Enter SAP Jam Collaboration
In early 2014, Sargent & Lundy evaluated several solutions and decided to implement its second SAP application — SAP Jam Collaboration — due in large part to the success of SAP SuccessFactors Learning Management System and the ease of integration. Making access to the application as easy as possible for users was crucial in gaining acceptance from the workforce. Conveniently, users could access SAP Jam from the learning management solution interface. Additionally, a link was added to Sargent & Lundy’s intranet homepage that led people directly to the SAP Jam application.
According to Myers, she avoided using the word “social” when describing SAP Jam because she felt the solution had much more value than what typically comes to mind when people think of a social networking site. “Our people are not interested in grabbing the spotlight or putting up a profile picture; what they care about passionately are the topics. Because we figured that out pretty early, we were able to design the tool in a meaningful way — to align with their passion,” Myers says. “When I think about our culture in terms of collaboration and change, I am always looking for opportunities for confluence, which really is an alignment of a new idea to a comfortable, existing structure or tool to encourage adoption.”
The project had great corporate support, with both the Chief Operations Officer and Director of Engineering at Sargent & Lundy acting as torchbearers during the implementation. The two-phased SAP Jam rollout commenced in the fourth quarter of 2015, starting with a pilot phase and bringing on an outside consultant to help with the configuration piece. “We created discussion room templates for each group with several pieces of content pre-populated in the group, and those were very successful,” says Myers. “After we got through the pilot phase, we managed the deployment by working through a list of our groups based on level of activity and group size. We started with the CoP groups that had the largest audiences and met most frequently. In October 2015, we started getting users engaged, and over the next year, we worked on integrating all the different CoP groups into the tool.”
As a way to boost adoption and make sure everyone was aware of the new application, Sargent & Lundy incorporated SAP Jam training as part of the new employee orientation process. This tactic provided awareness, according to Myers, and new employees had no problem posing questions to experts via the tool. For employees who had been with the company for some time, acceptance came down to ease of use. Making it possible for administrative staff to handle the posting of discussion notes in SAP Jam for the experts — so that the experts could simply focus on the high-quality content and questions — simplified the adoption curve.
If experts are exploring a problem or challenge during a CoP group and time runs out before the discussion has finished, that conversation can now continue in SAP Jam. Meeting attendees or administrators simply post the meeting notes in the tool, and the conversation continues for others to review or contribute to. “Not only does SAP Jam document the stories told in our CoP meetings, but it also records what the resolution was and, more importantly, how the decision was made,” says Myers. “The best part is that when an expert does retire, his or her contributions remain in the form of the stories, examples, and scenarios in the tool for others to benefit from. Years after that person retires, other engineers can search for a topic under that person’s expertise to find a particular conversation, and they can make a good decision because that conversation has been recorded.”
The SAP Jam interface is similar to other collaborative platforms in that users have their own profiles displaying information that they choose to share; however, the main focus is on discussion groups. “When users log in, they see a home feed that shows events in the discussion groups they subscribe to, and they can drill down into a specific feed or they can browse all the CoP groups to look at the latest developments and issues,” says Myers. “There are no restrictions on who can post a question, article, or discussion topic, so anyone can browse or navigate to whatever interests them.” For example, a designer in the transmission group can see how other designers in other groups solved similar problems by reviewing what the group discussed in the last CoP meeting, including the references and visuals discussed, as well as who the owners are, which experts in the field might be helpful on the project, or what solutions have been documented as helpful.
When people open SAP SuccessFactors Learning Management System to look for something — for example, a course on a certain task in electrical phasing — they can type “phasing” into the catalog search and will receive results on two tabs: one will show any training courses that Sargent & Lundy offers that address phasing; the other displays a list of any discussions in SAP Jam about phasing. Now that remote staff member in the UAE who had a problem with valve sizing can log on to SAP Jam, go into the valve discussion room, enter the type of valve or other key phrases, and find a conversation from two months ago that occurred at a CoP meeting where that exact problem was discussed.
Not only do employees have a fast way to find answers by accessing information that has already been contributed, but in cases where they can’t find the exact solution, they now also have a direct line to an expert who can get them the answer. They can write a targeted question to that particular expert, and the whole community contributes to the solution. “It’s not just one generation to another generation or one expert helping a more novice staff member achieve a goal; it’s a group of people helping a novice achieve a goal correctly and successfully, and making sure our clients are happy with the results,” says Myers. “The true value of SAP Jam is that it’s helping us communicate with the right people when there’s a challenge far more quickly than if we had to wait for people to come back from the field or finish a critical task.”
Some concrete business benefits have already arisen since the tool has been rolled out. “Based on conversations in SAP Jam, we have revised processes, put out technical alerts to staff where we saw something that needed attention, and changed some of our direction for staff to create training courses,” Myers says.
There are also quantifiable metrics such as how many people are logging in, how many times they tap a particular topic, and how many groups were viewed. Before SAP Jam, CoP participation was a challenge for regional staff, according to Myers. “Now, in the first year, we saw a 126% increase in participation — and in regions where people had never even accessed CoP material before, we saw them logging in and not just lurking, but making comments and posting,” she says. “We logged more than 2,000 different conversations or activities in the tool, and the attendance in our CoP groups outpaced the formal training participation.”
Currently, there are many CoP groups in SAP Jam ranging from very broad groups (such as all mechanical designers) to groups that dive deep into very specific technical topics (such as thermo hydraulics). Groups are not always technically focused. There’s a women in leadership group that aims to help women enhance their professional skills, gain career knowledge, and generate a sense of community. This group has grown to more than 100 members, with men often participating as well. The group meets to discuss topics like challenges women face in the workplace, changes in industry standards, or any upcoming, local conferences or community events. The group also includes individuals from all five generations, attesting to SAP Jam’s propensity for diversity. “It’s always rewarding to see some of our most senior people in groups like these posting comments in a discussion or sharing articles they found.”
There are also virtual CoP groups that communicate strictly in SAP Jam and never meet in person. “Having this ongoing virtual thread is especially valuable for people dealing with challenges in satellite offices,” says Myers. “These conversations not only give remote workers the opportunity to solve their problems quickly, but they also tie them back to home a little bit.”
Another intangible benefit is that people have a new vehicle for their voice to be heard as far as career development and succession planning. “Sometimes you don’t know who is truly passionate, interested, or engaged in a particular project or topic until they find a voice through the discussions, blogs, and articles they are sharing,” says Myers. “SAP Jam enables staff members to develop their knowledge and expertise in a collaborative environment by using groups of experts and like-minded colleagues. It taps five generations of knowledge in a unified effort to deliver the very best results for our clients.”
The business is currently working on adding a leadership program to SAP SuccessFactors Learning Management System for new management that will focus more on strategic development rather than technical topics, and this program will be complemented by a forum in SAP Jam. The business will continue to expand the use of the application based on the positive results seen so far. “We have achieved a reliable, safe, and sustainable way to get the right advice at the right moment,” Myers says. “With learning, there’s no substitute for generating great answers exactly when you need them.”